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My Camino Saint

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. James, apostle and martyr.

There are several references to James and his brother John in the Gospel in which he doesn’t appear so admirable. One is today’s Gospel reading where his mother approached Jesus with her sons asking that they “sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom,” causing the other apostles to become “indignant at the two brothers.” Another is when he wants Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan town that failed to offer them a proper reception, perhaps one of the incidents that caused Jesus to call him and his brother Boanerges – “Sons of Thunder.”

But James responded to Jesus’ call, dropping everything to follow him. And he was one of the first to follow Jesus to his death; James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I.

Tradition holds that St. James preached the Gospel in Spain and that, after his death in Judea, his remains found their way to Galicia in Spain, and they were later moved to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

When I arrived at the Catheral after walking the 500 mile Camino Francais from St. Jean Pied de Port, I visited first the large bust of St. James that sits high behind the main altar and then the crypt with his coffin below the altar.

I don’t know if James is really buried in that crypt. When I knelt there that’s what I pretty much said to him: “I have no idea if your remains are here or not, James, but I’m here, so let’s talk.”

Buried there or not, James is the patron saint of Spain and special friend to pilgrims on the Camino. And so on this day I honor James and ask for his friendship and inspiration. And I ask for his alacrity in following Jesus, and his strength to do so to the death.

As I sat in my prayer space at home this morning, I looked out and saw the automatic sprinklers operating in my yard and those of neighbors. The scene reminded me of a post my friend Richard wrote last week, sharing a dialogue sent to him by his brother-in-law. The dialogue is humorous, but makes a point that is anything but funny.

Here is a portion or the dialogue:

GOD SAID:
“Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.”

St. FRANCIS:
It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD:
Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS:
Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD:
The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make theSuburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS:
Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it -sometimes twice a week.

GOD:
They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

ST.. FRANCIS:
Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD:
They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS:
No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD:
Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS:
Yes, Sir.

GOD:
These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST.. FRANCIS:
You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

You can read the entirety of the dialogue here.

By pretty much any standard of measurement, we are doing a pretty miserable job of stewardship of this earth we have been given. We don’t conserve the resources we have, our actions degrade the environment, and what we do (and don’t do today) will have enormous consequences for those who follow us.

We need to do a better job.

My friend Maria Scaperlanda shared a blog post by a young woman she knows who is doing volunteer work in Honduras.

On her blog, the woman shared a small experience that helped deepen her understanding of God’s unconditional love.
The woman had needed to find a plunger and went door-to-door to her neighbors until she found one to borrow. What happened next had an enormous effect on her. Shortly after returning home with the plunger, the girl from whom she borrowed it came to her door asking to borrow some sugar.

Sounds normal, but this is the point where our omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-everything God humbly lined His heart up with mine in such a fashion that let me glimpse at His daughter standing in my doorway the way He sees her daily. She simply asked for a cup of sugar the way any normal human person would. “Since I lent you my plunger, you need to lend me a cup of sugar.” Logical, equal, fair. But her request didn’t seem fair. Her words placed a condition on our friendship that disqualified a favor done out of desire into one done out of obligation. This interaction left me unsettled somewhere deep in my heart, almost sad that she expected me to need a reason to do something nice for her. I wanted to do a favor for her because that is the nature of friendship, not because I owed her.

It was a silly moment to cause so much turmoil in my heart and mind, but here I am a week later feeling as if I have been punched in the face with an inkling of understanding of God’s love for us. Sometimes, even without knowing it, we approach God with the same “Since I…you need to…” concept of relationship. Since I prayed everyday this week, you need to give me good grades”. “Since I sacrificed a whole year of my life serving orphan babies in Honduras, You need to make me Saint Jordan; Patroness of sarcasm and cheesy blog posts.” The thing is, God already wants good things for us, but He doesn’t need our reasons for giving them. He has His own reason; we are His dearly cherished creation. That’s it….

Before this moment, I understood in my mind that God’s love is unconditional. But I had never felt in my heart the sense of distance from a friend who did not trust that I would love her without reason. Perhaps God feels this same distance from us when we place in front of Him our deeds and reasons and accomplishments, and not our bare hearts ready to trust His capacity to love.

You can read the whole post here.

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, follower of Jesus and the first person the Gospels record seeing and proclaiming the risen Christ. Today’s Gospel from John records the encounter between the two outside of the tomb.

Why did Pope Gregory identify Mary as a prostitute in 591? Why did it take so many centuries for the Church to abandon the idea that she was? I don’t have answers to these questions, though we can all make some guesses.

Whatever was mistakenly thought (and still sometimes preached) about her, Mary Magdalene is a model of apostleship and discipleship. In his 1988 Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II wrote:

The Gospel of John emphasizes the special role of Mary Magdalene. She is the first to meet the Risen Christ. At first she thinks he is the gardener; she recognizes him only when he calls her by name: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’. She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God’. Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord'; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

Hence she came to be called “the apostle of the Apostles.” Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness of the Risen Christ, and for this reason she was also the first to bear witness to him before the Apostles. This event, in a sense, crowns all that has been said previously about Christ entrusting divine truths to women as well as men. One can say that this fulfilled the words of the Prophet: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”

Today we celebrate Mary Magdalene, friend of Jesus and a model of apostolic witness. And we remember that, as was Mary, each of us is called by name and commissioned to proclaim the resurrection.

I want to tell you today about an organization I hope you will be willing to support. It is called City House and I feel very strongly about its work – strong enough that I both support it financially and sit on its board of directors. Some of you who I personally know may have already gotten a letter from me asking for your support (and more of you will).

The core mission of City House is to provide spiritual listening to people on the margins – including those experiencing poverty, addiction, and imprisonment. Trained volunteer Spiritual Companions meet one-on-one or in groups with participants at social service agency sites where they live or are receiving services. City House also offers a spiritual friendship program and leadership development for people in the mainstream who want to deepen their relationship with those experiencing life at the margins.

As most of you know, I have been a spiritual director and a retreat leader for a number of years. I have seen the difference it makes in people’s lives – people of all faiths and people of no faith – to have someone to whom they can tell their story, someone who will listen fully to them without judgment and with an open heart.

All the more important is this encounter to the people served by City House. In the words of the director of one of the social service agencies with which we work, “The social service system sees our tenants in terms of their deficits; City House does not do that. City House sees them for what they have to offer, for their innate spirit and for what they can give back to society. Sometimes this is the first time someone has seen them like that.”

City House brings non-judgmental, compassionate listening to those who are feeling their brokenness, transmits wisdom across boundaries of culture and economic disparity, and connects people in the mainstream and margin. Among other things, this makes it part of the solution in a culture of polarized viewpoints and demographic segregation.

City House relies on volunteers for much of its work – including the service by its board members, who receive no compensation for our time. But running it does require funds for paying it small staff, conducting training of its listeners, and paying various costs associated with City House operation and the programs it sponsors.

Many of you have been reading my blog for several years and have written to me telling me how much you have benefitted from my posts and podcasts. Many of you have remotely participated in retreats I’ve given, using the prayer material and podcasts I freely make available.

I am asking you to consider making a donation to City House. You can make a donation on-line or by check. If you prefer an on-line donation, please visit the City House website and click on the Donate button at the bottom of the home page. Alternatively, you can send a check payable to City House and mail it to City House at 1730 New Brighton Blvd #253, Minneapolis MN 55413-1248. A donation in any size would make an enormous difference to the work we can do.

Thank you for considering this.

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus offers three parables to help the crowds understand the kingdom of heaven: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with flour until the whole batch was leavened.

The one of the three parables that resonates the most with me is that of the yeast. Doubtless that is because we bake bread with regularity. I’ve seen the “magic” of mixing a few teaspoons of leaven into water and flour and seeing it turn into a beautifully risen dough. Here is St. Maximus of Turin’s explanation of the power and characteristics of leaven:

For although it is small in size, simple in appearance, and common in nature, it has such power within it that, when it has been concealed in flour, by its inherent energy it makes the whole mass what it itself is. And it so diffuses itself throughout the lump by the force of its spreading that it causes the whole mass of flour to become leaven, and thus the thing itself, by is own power, acquires for itself a mass that shares its own strength.

Maximus explains Jesus’ use of that parable this way: The leaven is compared to Jesus

who, when He was a man in form, little in humility, and cast down in weakness, was interiorly so powerful [that] when He began to spread Himself about through the whole earth by the power of His divinity, He immediately drew the entire human race into His substance by His own strength…He made it possible for everyone to be what He Himself was.

Sometimes when I have read that parable, I think of our job as being the yeast for others. But as I read this, it seems to me more accurate to say that our job is to help activate the yeast that already exists in all of us.

Jesus has already drawn all into His substance. Our much simpler job is to simply (a) realize that for ourselves and (b) help others to realize it about themselves.

Go forth and activate that yeast.

The Next Camino

I got a phone call yesterday from a woman who had seem the posts I wrote while on my Camino. She is interested in walking it and had some questions about how to proceed. Yesterday morning I opened an e-mail from my Camino friend Rocky, who sent some great pictures from the trip. Then I got on Facebook this morning and saw that another of my friends had changed her profile picture to one of her on the Camino.

All of this whets my appetite for my next Camino. I’m planning to walk this coming May and the big question is whether to walk the Camino del Norte, which begins in Irun and largely tracks the northern coast of Spain, or the Camino Portuguese, which goes north from Lisbon. (If anyone who has walked the Camino has any comparative evaluations about the two routes, I’d be glad to hear from them.)

It is not just the walking I’m looking forward to – although the process of getting ready to move from one house to another has meant I’ve done far too little hiking this summer. And not just the sights and colors. Or even the wonderful people I know I’ll meet. It is all that, but it is also that shift from chronos time to kairos time that is inherent in an experience that pulls us out of our normal schedule for such an extended period. A shift that changes both our own perspective and makes us open to God in a different way.

May is a good ways off, and I have plenty to focus on between now and then. But I am smiling in anticipation. And if those of you in the Twin Cities see my walking around town with my pack, you’ll know I’m just getting some early training in.

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